Karl Ove Knausgaard on America, Canada, Vikings, obesity and tipping

There is something brilliant about recruiting Karl Ove Knausgaard to write a two-part essay in the New York Times Magazine on traveling through America. In Knausgaard we have an author widely praised as Proustian in style; an author who embarked on writing a six volume semi-autobiographical book titled My Struggle; an author who has an über-focused, uncanny and unswerving sense of his surroundings. He also presents, in somewhat flat prose, just the facts - his observations. He is socially awkward and very reserved. He prefers to be alone or with only the company of his children. It appears, as far as I can tell, that his prior American visits were spent only in New York City. This latest visit, one that he is documenting, is his first foray into the American hinterland as it were. A Norwegian abroad in America; not your average Norwegian either, nor your average tourist. I can't wait to read the NYT Letters to the Editor column in the coming weeks.

Many Americans tend to believe in the idea of the country's exceptionalism, a deep belief that renders other countries as merely lesser entities; Europe is especially disparaged as 'socialist' because most European countries provide single-payer healthcare, along with reasonably priced higher education, for instance. What then would they make of Norway, one of the most truly socialist countries in the European bloc? What would they ever make of the Norse - the Danes, the Swedes and the Norwegians as a whole - if they were to ever meet any of them on their own soil? The Norse, a proud and stoic people living in the far north of the planet, who endure almost six months a year of darkness and bitterly cold temperatures, who's temperament is far removed from that of the average American. Knausgaard finds himself confused; not initially when he lands in Newfoundland, Canada, visiting the place where the Vikings had landed and settled a thousand years ago - in fact he is in thrall at being able to witness the very place that his Nordic ancestors landed, after crossing from Greenland, in what to them was the New World: Newfoundland. His confusion began when he went out for dinner later that evening.

The previous evening, I ate dinner at Jungle Jim’s restaurant. Everyone had looked up at me when I entered, a sort of ripple traveling through the room, heads lifting, necks turning, only to subside as I sat down at one of the tables. The walls were clad in bamboo, there were a few plastic palms strewn about and some of the dishes had jungle-related names. The contrast to the dark and empty town outside, the freezing cold air, which made it painful to breathe, the snow and the vast sky full of stars, couldn’t have been bigger. Several TVs were on with the sound muted, showing a hockey game between Sweden and Russia, a semifinal for the World Junior Championship. Everyone in the place, except the waiter, was fat, some of them so fat that I kept having to look at them. I had never seen people that fat before. The strange thing was that none of them looked as if they were trying to hide their enormous girth; quite the opposite, several people were wearing tight T-shirts with their big bellies sticking out proudly.

I couldn’t quite figure out a lot of the dishes, all those chicken wings and barbecue. I didn’t know what went with what, and was none the wiser after checking out what other people were eating, because they seemed to be having myriad dishes, served in baskets; some tables were entirely covered with them, some even stacked on top of one another. So I picked a spaghetti dish — that I could relate to. It consisted mainly of cheese, and tasted like something I could have cooked myself, back when I was still a student and would mix myself something out of whatever was in the fridge.

This evening, I ate at a place called Pizza Delight. It was located in the Viking Mall, and I was the only guest. The waitress, a girl of maybe 18, seemed permanently amazed at everything I said and did. I ordered a pizza; she asked me several times whether that was all I was having. Yes, I said. When it was brought to my table and I started to eat, she stood behind the counter, glancing at me surreptitiously. I knew I was doing something wrong, but I had no idea what.

[Edit]

I knew nothing about the U.S., much less Canada. And my only observation thus far was that people here were fatter than back home. What was that if not the cliché about America?

As I returned the book to my backpack and went to look for the waitress, who had been out of sight for a while, I was furious and in despair. And now, on top of everything, there was the business of tipping. I hated leaving tips, not because I was stingy, to the contrary, but because I never knew how much to give or how to do it if I paid by credit card and the card terminal didn’t have a tipping function. Worst of all, however, were the times when someone carried my luggage to my room. I could never bring myself to give them money, the situation was too embarrassing, I felt that stuffing some cash into their hands would just humiliate them.

This time I had a $10 bill in my pocket, which I put on the counter after I paid, sort of casually and by-the-way, full of shame, because I was treating her as a servant.

Reading Knausgaard's essay of his time in America is like witnessing the collision of continents: Those piles of food baskets, no doubt plastic, are a perfect allegory that points to indulgence and over-consumption on a grand scale; the enormous girths; the waitress asking Knausgaard if one pizza was all he was having; his otherness in the eyes of that waitress; the shame he felt when tipping. We see Knausgaard, in all of this telling, colliding head-on with North American mores.

It would be imbecilic of me to suggest that there are no obese people in Norway, Denmark or Sweden, there must be. It is just that it is not the norm throughout Europe in general. Does obesity make America exceptional? Knausgaard felt that it was a cliché even when considering it. Having experienced American eating habits he may feel it is no longer a cliché as far as he's concerned.

I have traveled extensively throughout Europe, yet have been in Norway only once, when my band Gang of Four performed in Bergen in 2006. I recall eating well at the Bergen home of my friend Arve Overland's parents. It was a gathering of family. The food was healthy and plentiful, medium-sized portions; the food served was not the centre of attention; conversation was the key that brought warmth and goodwill to the occasion.; the food was a tasty compliment. I didn't feel like I was just a guest so much as I was part of an extended family.

In Jungle Jim's and Pizza Delight, Knausgaard must have felt unmoored, lonely and deflated.